Vegetarian omega-3 fatty acids

Dear Alice,

I know that omega-3 fatty acids are good for you and found in fish, but I'm a vegetarian and don't eat fish. Is there another source where I can get them?

Dear Reader,

Omega-3s fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that your body needs for numerous body functions, such as controlling blood clotting and normal brain function. Omega-3s have been shown to help prevent heart disease and possibly stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis due to anti-inflammatory properties, and could be protective against certain types of cancer and other conditions. Within omega-3 fatty acids, there are different kinds, some of which can be found in vegetarian foods. So if fish isn't your food of choice, don't fret, as you can find some omega-3 fatty acids in other places. 

There are three main types of omega-3s: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are mainly found in fish, whereas ALA is found in many plant-based products. Sources of ALA include vegetable oils (such as soybean or canola), nuts (especially walnuts), flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables (such as kale, spinach, and Brussels sprouts). You could try adding some walnuts and flaxseed into your oatmeal, yogurt, or smoothie, and use vegetable oil for cooking or in a salad dressing to top off a leafy veggie. Canola oil can be used to make a vegetable stir fry with tofu. Tahini, which is made with sesame seeds, is a great source of omega-3s and can be used to make sauces and dips, such as hummus.

There is some debate on whether sources of ALA carry the same benefits as fish sources of EPA and DHA. The body converts ALA into EPA and DHA, but not everyone’s body does this well. If you’re not averse to making an exception to your vegetarianism for fish oil, you can consider taking a fish oil supplement and might want to speak with your health care provider or a registered dietitian before doing so. There are also some vegan omega-3 supplements that are derived from algae. When it comes to using any form of supplement, it's wise to remember that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration isn't approving supplements for their safety the same way they are for other drugs and prescriptions that are on the market. Before taking any supplements, speaking with a health care provider about their recommendations and doing research into any potential supplements can help ensure that you're getting reliable supplements that support your body and are low-risk. 

Happy eating!

Last updated Jan 06, 2023
Originally published Sep 22, 2000

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